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Kennedy Nzechukwu of Nigeria prepares to fight Ion Cutelaba of Moldova in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on November 19, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Athletes

Kennedy Nzechukwu Levelling Up with Added Experience

Fortis MMA representative carries a three-fight winning streak into clash with Dustin Jacoby in Nashville

Kennedy Nzechukwu owns a 12-3 record as a professional mixed martial artist, with nine of those 15 appearances coming inside the UFC Octagon.

A two-time competitor on Dana White’s Contender Series and member of the Class of ’18, the Nigerian-born light heavyweight reached the biggest stage in the sport as a bundle of raw skill with obvious natural gifts and the potential to one day develop into a threat in the 205-pound weight class. Now, as he readies to meet Dustin Jacoby on Saturday’s main card in Nashville, the 31-year-old Fortis MMA representative is on the brink of breaking into the Top 15, and points to a familiar element as the key to his recent success and rise through the ranks.

“I always knew I was gonna be a great fighter, no doubt about it, but you need experience,” said Nzechukwu, who walked into the Dallas gym without any martial arts training and has only been fighting as a professional for a little more than seven years. “Without experience, you can’t accomplish anything.

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“I always knew I would get there, I just needed the experience,” he said, reiterating his point. “This is the fight game; it’s not like basketball or soccer — the margin of error is incredibly small and you have to be very critical and confident when you walk into that cage as you look to impose your will on your opponent, because he’s coming to feed his family, too.”

Kennedy Nzechukwu Fight Week Interview | UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs Font
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Kennedy Nzechukwu Fight Week Interview | UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs Font
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After losing his promotional debut against Scottish standout Paul Craig in the waning moments of the third round, Nzechukwu rattled off three straight victories to flash the upside his long-time coach Sayif Saud had always highlighted. He weathered heavy early fire against Carlos Ulberg before settling the City Kickboxing man in the second, and then rallied from two rounds down to dispatch Danilo Marques in his very next fight, but the experience of a fighter with just 10 appearances under his belt reared its head over the next two contests.

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Heading into last summer’s matchup with Karl Roberson on a two-fight slide, it felt like a crossroads moment for the soft-spoken, articulate fighter, and the improvements Nzechuwku had made shone through inside the Octagon.

He followed up that victory with a similarly patient, punishing finish of Ion Cutelaba in November, claiming a Performance of the Night bonus for his efforts before pushing his winning streak to three with a technical submission win over Devin Clark earlier this year at UFC 288. He took the fight to the powerful wrestler, dominating him in the clinch and at range, and when Clark made the mistake of leaving his neck exposed as he pressed forward in pursuit of a takedown, Nzechuwku locked up a ninja choke and put him to sleep.

Since he arrived on the UFC stage, Saud had told me that if his quiet, but talented, charge ever put it all together, he was going to be a real problem in the light heavyweight division, and now, nine fights into his UFC journey, it feels like Nzechukwu is standing on the precipice of becoming exactly what his coach envisioned.

Kennedy Nzechukwu of Nigeria reacts after his submission victory over Devin Clark in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Kennedy Nzechukwu of Nigeria reacts after his submission victory over Devin Clark in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC 288 event at Prudential Center on May 06, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

“I just needed that experience and for God to guide me down that pathway to get there,” said the devoutly religious fighter, who owns an 83 percent finishing rate inside the Octagon and nine finishes in his 12 career victories. “I have always been a slow learner, a slow starter, even as a kid, but I always put in the work, though, and it’s the work that has made a difference for me.

“The work is the difference between me and other guys, and it ends up adding up in the long run; it shows itself.”

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In addition to producing three straight victories, the work that Nzechukwu has been putting in has carried him to the doorstep of the Top 15, having cracked the rankings momentarily last month before Alex Pereira prompted things to be rearranged following his debut win over former champ Jan Blachowicz last week at UFC 291.

Nzechukwu being ranked provided Saud with a proud moment, as three fighters that came up together at Fortis MMA — Nzechukwu, Ryan Spann, and Alonzo Menifield, who parted ways with the group a couple years ago — all stood amongst the best fighters in the UFC light heavyweight division.

But while it was a prideful moment for his coach, briefly having a number next to his name wasn’t something that resonated for the fighter himself.

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“Top 15, not really,” began Nzechukwu, pausing to find the right words. “For me, I was raised differently. My dad always raised me to be No. 1, so anything besides No. 1 is just pointless. I’m always thankful to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving me the opportunity, but I don’t celebrate No. 15; there is no point. I just keep my eyes on the top and I’m willing to do everything to get there.

“In the meantime, I’m taking it one fight at a time, and as I continue to earn these victories, it will propel me to that status.”

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The next fight on that journey is Saturday’s main card pairing with Jacoby, the first matchup against a Top 15 fighter of Nzechukwu’s career.

Fighting out of Factory X Muay Thai, the 35-year-old also worked his way onto the UFC roster through the annual talent-search series, earning a second chance to showcase what he can do inside the Octagon with a unanimous decision win over Ty Flores in the summer of 2020. Jacoby proceeded to rattle off a seven-fight unbeaten streak to force his way into the rankings, with many believing his run should have continued through his split decision loss to Khalil Rountree Jr. last October.

Last time out, “The Hanyak” ran into unbeaten, ascending Russian Azamat Murzakanov, sending him into this weekend’s card on a two-fight slide.

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“It means a lot because he’s a tough fighter, he’s durable, he comes to fight,” Nzechukwu said of Jacoby, his opinions and impressions of his opponent unchanged despite his recent struggles. “He has so much experience under his belt and I’m ready to share the Octagon with him.

“I know he’s going to bring the best version of himself and that’s the type of fight I’m expecting, the type of fights I like,” he continued. “Let’s go out there and put it on the line. We worked so hard to get here, we might as well go out there and give the fans what they want.”

And for the streaking rising star, that means only one possible outcome.

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“I just want a finish,” Nzechukwu said with a smile. “I’m ready to put everything on the line — that’s how I train, that’s how I think; I want to finish every one of my opponents.

“I need a finish,” he added. “I don’t need any judges dictating whether I won my fight or not.”

They haven’t been needed as of late, and there is no reason to believe that will change this weekend, either.

UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs Font took place live from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee on August 5, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!